“[It] is as resistant to classification as Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, the Sudelbücher of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, or Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave, those great masterpieces of disjunction.”
Sinyavsky’s disjunctiveness was forced on him. The book is based on the two letters per month he was permitted to write his wife from a Soviet forced labor camp between March 1966 and June 1971. Starting in the late nineteen-fifties, and writing under the pseudonym he took from a legendary Russian-Jewish gangster, Abram Tertz, the non-Jewish Sinyavsky published Gogolian stories that flaunted the dreary strictures of socialist realism. He and another writer, Yuri Daniel, were charged with publishing anti-Soviet work abroad. Both were found guilty. Sinyavsky was sentenced to seven years in a forced labor camp; Daniel, five.
During his years in the camp, Sinyavsky was not otherwise permitted to write. In A Voice from the Chorus, he frequently celebrates the whiteness of the page as signifying unfettered freedom of imagination (imagine what he could have done with a blog). Having already endured the writer’s hell of not being permitted to write, there’s no excuse for fear or writer’s block. The biggest surprise awaiting the reader of A Voice is how joyous a book it is. Sinyavsky left the Soviet Union in 1973, settled in Paris, and died in 1997. The English translation of A Voice from the Chorus, my favorite among his books, was published in 1976. It represents a nebulous genre I’m fond of – the grab bag, a book held together by its author’s sensibility, that elusive mingling of intelligence, learning, emotional depth, verbal inventiveness and pure writerly charm. Magpie-fashion, Sinyavsky collects prison folklore, stray thoughts mundane and profound, observations on his evolving religious sense and literary criticism.
I quote the passage by Brown at the top because it might be misread as an example of that favorite trope of lazy reviewers and blurb-writers, characterization-by-association, as in “reads like the deliriously unholy offspring of Roger Maris and Nicholas of Cusa.” Brown is too intelligent and punctilious a writer to play that game. Of Sinyavsky’s kinship with Burton there’s little doubt. This is not a matter of influence but affinity. Both relished the swelter of words and life. In “Democritus Junior to the Reader,” his introduction to The Anatomy of Melancholy, Burton writes:
“…it was the observation of that wise Seneca `when you see a fellow careful about his words, and neat in his speech, know this for a certainty, that man’s mind is busied about toys, there’s no solidity in him.’ Non est ornamentum virile concinnitas [elegance is not a manly distinction]: as he said of a nightingale, vox es, praeterea nihil [voice and nothing more], &c.”
Sudelbücher refers to the collections of aphorisms and other odds and ends, literally “scrapbooks,” or “Waste Books” as Steven Tester calls them in his translation of Philosophical Writings (SUNY Press, 2012) by Lichtenberg (1742-1799). Here are two consecutive entries from “Notebook K,” chosen almost at random:
“It was once fashionable, and perhaps still is, to add to the title of a novel the words a true story. This is an innocent deception; that, however, the words a novel are omitted from some recent history books is not so innocent.”
“Comparison of a preacher and a locksmith: The one says: `You should not want to steal’; and the other says: `You should not be able to steal.’”
And an uncharacteristically terse snippet from Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave: A Word Cycle by Palinurus (1944): “While thoughts exist, words are alive and literature becomes an escape, not from, but into living.”
Again, we’re not talking about formal influence. I have no idea whether Sinyavsky was familiar with any of these writers. All were bottomlessly curious. None was a systematic thinker. Here is a passage from A Voice from the Chorus devoted to the great Isaac Babel, who was murdered with a bullet in the head by the NKVD in Lubyanka seventy-four years ago this week, on Jan. 27, 1940:
"[Isaac] Babel exhibited a trait common, perhaps, to all writers: he was not merely an observer, he was also a snooper. All his life he spied 'through the keyhole' in the hope of seeing something interesting. As an author, he was always himself off stage, looking from outside at the bizarre scenes he picked out from some squalid area of life -- hence his reticence about his own views and the elusive quality of his biography. What kind of views, indeed, can a man have if he is entirely engrossed in the search for outlandish things and subjects buried among the rubbish? And his biography is that not of a living person, but of one seconded to life (his job of clerk in the Red Cavalry suited him admirably), who could fit into any surroundings or situation and look at it without prejudice. He was a spy in the service of literature who ferreted out wonders in everyday existence, a declasse secret agent who once rented a room in the house of a 'finger man' in order to write his Odessa Stories. His non-Russian origins were also a convenience for him.”